More than 8 out of every 10 women in Afghanistan experience domestic violence or another form of violence in their lifetime and 62 percent of Afghan women experience multiple incidents of violence. Despite legislation and the support of Western powers to affirm women’s rights, the culture in Afghanistan remains extremely patriarchal. There is a deeply ingrained cultural norm that men have total control over all aspects of the life and death of women and girls and that these victims have no right to leave a violent and abuse situation. Nearly 40 years of conflict in the country has only further exacerbated the extent of women’s subordination. It is in this context that women’s shelters in Afghanistan offer an invaluable safe haven to thousands of women. However, the survival of these refuges is currently under threat by a recent proposal for new legislation to bring them under governmental control.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the United Nations, the United States and numerous other European States funded organisations to operate women’s shelters in Afghanistan. Prior to the creation of these women’s shelters, there was no refuge for women escaping violent domestic situations. Women and girls are frequently forced to marry, often men much older than themselves, in order to settle debts and form familial alliances. So-called “honour killings” are commonplace and the women who flee to these shelters often arrive with their lips and noses severely mutilated. In the absence of these shelters, women would likely be forced to live on the streets or face continued abuse or even death.
For women who have escaped abusive husbands, fathers and other relatives, these shelters provide food, safety and education. NGOs run an estimated 40 shelters, legal aid offices and halfway houses for affected women. Women for Afghan Women, one of the major shelter operators, runs 26 shelters and other sites that serve nearly 5,000 women a year. Legally, shelters are obliged to “resettle” the women that come through their doors, typically through mediation with their families. When that is not possible, shelters often hand the case over to lawyers while the women remain at the shelter, but this process can often take several years before a resolution can be reached. While shelters do not have the legal power to protect the women who pass through their doors, their mere existence provides a sense of security and hope to women who cannot access the justice system.
In February 2018, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) in Afghanistan made public their plans to require the organisations that operate these shelters to solicit funding from the ministry itself, rather than their existing foreign donors. Currently, nearly all of the women’s shelters depend on international donations. The proposed legislation would require donors to submit their funding requirements to the MoWA, which would then allocate and distribute the funds to the NGOs operating the shelters. Officially, the government claims that this move is part of a wider push to curb corruption by extending government oversight over donor funds. The MoWA believes that this financial control will make the NGOs operating the shelters responsive and accountable to the ministry. However, if enacted, this new law would give nearly complete financial control over the shelters to the Afghan government, bringing to an end the independence which currently enables them to be effective. The MoWA has issued their assurances that it is their duty to protect the shelters. However, neither the NGOs operating the shelters, nor their international donors, have sufficient confidence in the ministry to administer the funds in a way that will ensure the full protection of women.
Women facing accusations of sexual misconduct, or who run away from home or refuse to get married are often imprisoned by this government for committing “moral crimes”, an ambiguous concept which has no place in any contemporary legal system. Conservative officials in the government as well as religious figures have attacked women’s shelters for years, arguing that “morality” is strictly a family matter and thus any interference is unjustified. Many have accused women’s shelters of encouraging women to leave their homes and their families. Many conservatives view the shelters as a manifestation of foreign influence and unwelcome meddling and have even gone as far as to make repeated claims that the shelters are actually brothels sexually abusing the women that turn to them for help. Pivotally, there has been no evidence to suggest that any such abuse occurs in these shelters.
This is not the first time that the Afghan government has tried to introduce legislation against women’s shelters. In 2011, the MoWA used similar rhetoric to justify its attempted takeover of the shelters, under the pretense that women there were being sexually exploited. The proposed legislation would have required women to convince a panel that they deserved refuge and would have been forced to undergo “virginity tests”. The legislation also would have required shelters to return the women to their families at their relatives’ requests. Similarly, in 2013 the government tried to dilute previous legislation that criminalised violence against women. In the same year, the MoWA also tried to take financial control of the shelters. In all of these cases,
Western governments, primarily in the US and EU, and international donors supporting the shelters, have fought the proposals.
Until now, with international funds and pressure, women’s shelters have been able to successfully continue operating. Without the international community pressuring the Afghan government to safeguard women’s shelters’ independence, they will fall under the control of the MoWA. A major concern for the long-term is that if the shelters are merged with the Ministry, conservatives will push for the Ministry itself to be closed down, resulting in the elimination of the shelters as well.
The timing of this move to take over the shelters is no coincidence. Decreasing levels of international aid and attention for and on Afghanistan and a resurgent Taliban is providing ample space for conservatives within the Afghan government to push through this type of legislation. As the conflict in Afghanistan escalates, and forces hostile to women’s rights gain political capital within the government, it is critical that the international community remains vigilant and proactively responds to any attempts to dismantle key provisions and resources for women escaping violence.
Heather Barr, ‘No Shelter in Afghanistan’ Human Rights Watch (March 2018)
AFP, ‘Afghan Women Shelters Bring Succor to Abuse Victims’ The Express Tribune (May 2017)
Andrew E Kramer, ‘Shelters have Saved Countless Afghan Women. So Why are They Afraid? ‘ The New York Times (March 2018)
Women’s Shelters Face Closure in Afghanistan, Leaving Thousands of Women at Risk’ Women in the World (March 2017)
Safe Houses for Afghan Women’ Institute for War & Peace Reporting (March 2018)
Sarah Crowe, ‘Shelters for Women and Girls in Afghanistan’ UNICEF (March 2011)